Perhaps no decade is so immortalized in American memory as the 1960s. Couched in the colorful rhetoric of peace and love, complemented by stirring images of the civil rights movement, and fondly remembered for its music, art, and activism, for many the decade brought hopes for a more inclusive, forward-thinking nation. But the decade was also plagued by strife, tragedy, and chaos. It was the decade of the Vietnam War, of inner-city riots, and assassinations that seemed to symbolize the crushing of a new generation’s idealism. A decade of struggle and disillusionment rocked by social, cultural, and political upheaval, the 1960s are remembered because so much changed, and because so much did not. Read more from Chapter 27 of the American Yawp.
On December 6, 1969, an estimated 300,000 people converged on the Altamont Motor Speedway in Northern California for a massive free concert headlined by the Rolling Stones and featuring some of the era’s other great rock acts.1 Only four months earlier, Woodstock had shown the world the power of peace and love and American youth. Altamont was supposed to be “Woodstock West.”2
But Altamont was a disorganized disaster. Inadequate sanitation, a horrid sound system, and tainted drugs strained concertgoers. To save money, the Hell’s Angels biker gang was paid $500 in beer to be the the show’s “security team.” The crowd grew progressively angrier throughout the day. Fights broke out. Tensions rose. The Angels, drunk and high, armed themselves with sawed-off pool cues and indiscriminately beat concert-goers who tried to come on the stage. The Grateful Dead refused to play. Finally, the Stones came on stage.3
The crowd’s anger was palpable. Fights continued near the stage. Mick Jagger stopped in the middle of playing “Sympathy for the Devil” to try and calm the crowd: “Everybody be cool now, c’mon,” he plead. Then, a few songs later, in the middle of “Under my Thumb,” eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter approached the stage and was beaten back. Pissed off and high on methamphetamines, Hunter brandished a pistol, charged again, and was stabbed and killed by an Angel. His lifeless body was stomped into the ground. The Stones just kept playing.4
If the more famous Woodstock music festival captured the idyll of the sixties youth culture, Altamont revealed its dark side. There, drugs and music and youth were associated not with peace and love but with anger, violence, and death. Likewise, while many Americans in the 1970s continued to celebrate the political and cultural achievements of the previous decade, a more anxious, conservative mood grew across the nation. For some, the United States had not gone nearly far enough to promote greater social equality; for others, the nation had gone too far, unfairly trampling the rights of one group to promote the selfish needs of another. Onto these brewing dissatisfactions the 1970s dumped the divisive remnants of a failed war, the country’s greatest political scandal, and an intractable economic crisis. It seemed as if the nation was ready to unravel. Read more about Chapter 28 in the American Yawp.